This week, VICE Sports looks at the topics, people, and things that made news in 2015. You can read our collection of year-in-review stories here.
The most important 200 meters in Visp, a village in southern Switzerland about 25 miles north of the Matterhorn, are collectively known as Bahnhofstrasse. In German, the word means, literally, "rail yard street." It's cobbled and open only to pedestrians. The train station sits at one end. At the other lies the town square. In the middle, surrounded by banks and boutiques and cafes, you'll find perhaps the most important landmark in any small town like this one, which has just 7,000 residents: the McDonald's.
For a Visper, as the locals call themselves, Bahnhofstrasse is the main artery of civic life. But for one resident, it might be the single most important 200 meters in all the world. On March 10, 1936, Sepp Blatter, the suspended, long-time FIFA President, was born in a hotel on Bahnhofstrasse. When he retires, he'll probably end up somewhere nearby.
Unlike a lot of small town kids who make it in the big city, Blatter never turned his back on his home town. The man comes back to Visp—a place offering a single movie theatre, two serious bars, and the nearby mountains as the only real forms of entertainment—all the time.
It's sweet, if you think about it. We're talking about a guy who has traveled around the earth more times than he can probably count. He's fluent in five languages, and can probably stumble through five more. He'd be on the shortlist for the World's Most Cosmopolitan Man award, if it existed. Despite all that, he keeps an apartment in Visp's tiny downtown. Last month, Blatter spent time in Visp after reportedly having an emotional breakdown. His daughter owns a bar on Bahnhofstrasse. That street, those 200 meters in this little town where there's nothing really to do, is Blatter's Shangri-La, and he's lucky to have it.
In 2015, no sports personality was as reviled around the world as Blatter. The man became synonymous with FIFA's corruption. This year, Blatter resigned as FIFA President, then un-resigned. This year, many of his top aides were arrested, and charged—several entering guilty pleas—on corruption charges. This year, the U.S. Government compared FIFA— the organization Blatter has presided over since 1998—with the mob. And finally, the year ended with Blatter being unceremoniously expelled by FIFA's own Ethics Committee. His fall has been sudden and complete, his reputation ruined.
But this little mountain town, these 200 meters, are a haven for him. Somehow, he still has supporters scattered around the world, but nowhere quite like this, where he is and will always be the beloved Sepp.
Subject: Marcel Vogel, an elderly man walking his dog.*
Location: A path beside the FC Visp stadium.
Interview Language: German.
VICE Sports: What do people around here think of Blatter?
Marcel Vogel: He's really well liked, I would say. I think the people in general find the situation very serious. It's not a matter of believing it or not.
VS: Do the people here think he has nothing to do with what's going on with FIFA?
MV: Nothing? Nothing is maybe too strong. But [he doesn't have] too much to do with it. I've always said, or this is the theory, that it was the people next to him, or below him. He is one of us, though, and it will stay that way, at least for the older generation.
VS: Will the opinion of him change if he were to be convicted of something in the future?
MV: I don't think so. He'll stay one of us.
Blatter's daughter's bar is called Napoleon. The emperor never made it into this valley, as far as I know, but one of Bahnhofstrasse's cross streets is Napoleonstrasse, so hence the name. Napoleon is listed online as a pizzeria, and the locals call it a bar or a bistro, but I never saw anybody eat anything there. I never even saw a menu.
I arrived around 3:30 p.m. on a Wednesday in early December—before the FIFA Ethics Committee had banned Blatter—and slid into a seat by a window. I was the youngest person there by at least 20 years. The bar smelled of Yankee Candles and old people, and the inside was every-light-on-at-once bright. Speakers in the corner piped in Joe Cocker's "You Can Leave Your Hat On." Nearly the entire interior—walls, bar, tables, molding—were made of the same lightly stained wood.
The elderly like to do everything a little early, so perhaps it was not a surprise that the place was rather full. The men stood at the bar, laughing and telling jokes; the women sat at the tables along the windows, talking in soft, singsong Swiss German. One of Visp's claims to fame is that it's home to Europe's highest vineyards, and everyone at Napoleon seemed to be drinking wine.
Three blue FIFA flags, sheathed in translucent plastic, hung behind the bar. They weren't flagpole-sized, but rather little triangular things—the kind meant to hang from a hook or to be embroidered with a team's crest and given to an opposing captain before an international match.
The waitress looked almost exactly like a photo I'd once seen of Blatter's daughter—wide eyes, a bright smile, brown hair almost to her shoulders. Could she be here, waiting tables on a Wednesday afternoon? I pondered this while enjoying a cappuccino.
When it came time to pay, I asked her—in the hope of starting a conversation—if this was indeed the bar owned by Blatter's daughter. She straightened and pursed her lips before slowly nodding, yes.
With the same puckered look, which seemed suddenly fearful rather than disapproving, she shook her head, no.
On the way out, I asked the bartender if I could snap a quick photo of the flags.
"Yes," he said, after a beat. "You may." He let out a long, audible sigh as I fumbled with my phone. As I took the photo, he said, quietly, "It makes sense."
The FIFA flags behind the bar. Photo credit: Brian Blickenstaff
Subject: Manuel Dinis Costa Dias, a Portuguese construction worker who has lived in Switzerland for 27 years.
Location: A sidewalk along the Saaser Vispa River.
Interview Language: Spanish.
Costa Dias: I've seen him a bunch of times in the city. He's really friendly with us. He bought a round of beers for me and three or four friends and then he chatted with us for 10, 15 minutes. A really nice guy. The only bad thing is that he talks bad about Cristiano [Ronaldo], making fun of how he looks and dresses. Yeah, I think everyone here really likes him. He's a good guy. A little corrupt though, right?
VS: Is he?
CD: No, that was a joke. No, I don't know if he is corrupt. I don't know him well and can't say, but everyone here thinks he's clean.
It's funny, you can get lost in Visp. I did. One wrong turn at night in the darkened streets— which are too narrow for cars, and wind and weave uphill and downhill, following no plan at all, past buildings that date to the 1500s—and not even Google can save you.
I arrived at night, took a wrong turn and found myself along the Saaser Vispa, a river that flows briskly through town before emptying into the Rhone. In the light of day, the water is a glacial, milky blue. In the dark, it was so black it could have been a river of pitch.
Visp's Old Town in the daylight. Photo Credit: Brian Blickenstaff
As I walked in my hotel's direction, I took what I assumed was a shortcut through a parking lot and found myself, suddenly, in front of an imposing, four-story stone building. Dark lettering against the building's light facade read "Primarschulhaus" (or primary school house), and then, one story below, in a larger font, "Sepp Blatter."
I looked at my map and turned back toward the river, trying to orient myself between the two landmarks. It seemed unusually dark. Craning my head upward, I realized two looming mountains, which were blacker than the sky above, blocked most of the stars. The mountains' only texture came from the white of exposed cliff faces and a little bit of snow, which gave the impression that they weren't mountains at all, but two enormous, frothing waves about to crash down on the city below.
Subject: Niklaus Furger, Visp mayor.
Location: The mayor's office.
Interview Language: English/German.
VS: Has the negativity surrounding the FIFA scandal affected your city at all?
NF: No. No. What's happened has had no impact on the residents of Visp. He is one of our neighbors. We're proud that the FIFA President is a man of Visp.
VS: If he were to be charged with a crime, would the opinion of him change here?
NF: What should I say? I don't think that he will be charged [with wrongdoing]. Therefore, I haven't given it much thought.
I know Mr. Blatter very well. I am also president of his foundation. I am not the president of his foundation because I know him well. I am president because I am Mayor of Visp. The Mayor of Visp is always also the president of his foundation. This is in the statutes. But that's how I know him.
A flag from the Sepp Blatter Foundation congratulating the Mayor on his reelection. Photo Credit: Brian Blickenstaff
VS: What kinds of things has Blatter done for the city?
NF: He is a—how do you call it?—an honorable citizen of Visp. He is a citizen of honor. We have two mayors. I am the Mayor of the city. The other is the president of the "old community." [ed. Like a cultural society]. Mr. Blatter is the honorable citizen of the old city of Visp. He is the only one in Visp who has this title.
VS: I noticed the school is named Sepp Blatter
NF: No, not the school––only the schoolhouse. And it was the house where he went to school. But not the school—the school is not named Sepp Blatter—only the building. And we did this in 1998, when he was elected FIFA President.
VS: Did he donate money for such an honor?
NF: No, it is only an honor.
The Sepp Blatter building. Photo Credit: Brian Blickenstaff
VS: Has he given any money to Visp?
NF: He has a foundation. Every year his foundation gives a main prize. For example, one [recent] prize was given to the old people's home in Visp. We gave this prize one year to a social institution and [the next] year to an institution that helps promote football in the world.
But he didn't give—how do you call it?—lots of money to us. [This depends on your definition of "lots of money." The Foundation has given tens of thousands of Swiss Francs to Visp.—Ed.]
He helped football in Visp. Last year was the 100-year anniversary of FC Visp. He brought prominent players to Visp, like Ronaldo?
[At this, unsure if it was Ronaldo or not, or which Ronaldo, Mayor Furger grabs a book about Visp and looks for a chapter on Blatter, searching for a photo. He shows me some of the pictures.]
You see? He is very important to us.
VS: When Blatter retires, will he come to Visp?
NF: I hope so.
An entire chapter in Vesper Geist, the civic history book published in 2012, which (full disclosure) Mayor Furger eventually gave me as a gift, is devoted to Blatter. It includes pages of photos of Blatter with Bill Clinton, Blatter with Nelson Mandela, Blatter with Obama, with Putin, with Tony Blair. Just photo after photo, all arranged on a grid, like a high school yearbook.
The first photo, however, is of Blatter as a newborn. It accompanies some text about his life and career. In the photo, his mother, Bertha, who has a round face and crimped, jaw-length hair, stands on what looks like a balcony. She holds the baby up and out, presenting him to the world as if she knew how proud he would one day make their town.
In case this hasn't come through so far, it bears repeating: nobody in Visp said a single bad thing to me about Blatter. The worst I got was, "He should have retired four years ago, before any of this happened," which one waitress offered while I ate some noodles one day at lunch. An elderly nun I spoke with told me she knew nothing about the scandal before explaining, at length, the various good things he has done for not just football, but for the world. As I watched a Champions League game one night in Visp, a bartender told me we shouldn't even care that Blatter engaged in corrupt activities—if he had even done so, which the bartender very much doubted—because nobody really got hurt. The conversation turned into a lecture on geopolitics and some browbeating over my American passport: "He brought football to the world, to Africa," the guy told me. "It's not like he sold them weapons."
Subject: A woman in her early 20s
Location: Tourist Info, Visp
Interview Language: German
VS: Are the people here proud of Blatter?
Young Woman: Actually yeah. Mostly.
How you feel about Blatter and what he's accomplished depends a great deal on where you're from. Small towns have a way of feeling constrictive. They can make the world out there, across the river or beyond the mountains, seem impossibly huge, scary even. The people of Visp are proud of Blatter because he's represented their community on the world stage—in its own way a kind of courageous act. He could have stayed, after all, and just taken one of the plentiful jobs at the local chemical plant, as so many of his classmates no doubt did. And the people of Visp are thankful to him because he hasn't forgotten them, because he certainly could have. Instead, he keeps coming back, and when he does, he sometimes bears gifts.
But by "where you're from," I don't mean whether or not you're from Visp; I mean where you're from in the world. Because what Blatter has accomplished in Visp—making a small place feel important and valued in a big world—he's done elsewhere, too. It's the way he derived most of his power.
I'm talking, of course, about small countries in Africa and the Caribbean and Asia and Oceania. I'm talking about countries that have relatively little wealth or human resources, places that often feel trodden upon by the West. Blatter, along with his predecessor João Havelange, gave these countries a voice inside FIFA by allowing them to vote and compete as nations, even when other international organizations—like the United Nations—might not recognize them as such. At FIFA, Germany, the U.S., Andorra, Guam, and Lesotho, and every other country or recognized community, all have the same number of votes, the same power. Across this constituency, Blatter spread billions of dollars in FIFA money, earmarked for development. What he received in return was loyalty in the form of electoral support.
A crude photo of FC Visp's home ground. The building on the bottom left bears Blatter's name. He played for the team as a kid, and often hosted celebrity matches here. Credit: Brian Blickenstaff
It's not hard to spin all this as a positive thing—empowering poor nations through soccer—and in some cases it no doubt is positive. But Blatter's administration did not operate like a developmental organization. From his position atop the governing structure, Blatter ensured a certain opacity in FIFA's dealings. I mean, we still don't know how much the guy got paid. He surrounded himself with a number of assistants and vice presidents, members of FIFA who embezzled money, took kickbacks and basically worked as a criminal organization. We can argue about how involved Blatter was in all of this—we'll probably find out at some point—but even if he was somehow, implausibly, shielded from all the corruption, as chief executive of the organization, he should be held accountable.
Blatter knows people though. He's often described as a master manipulator. He knows we're distrustful by nature and that we value things we can see and touch over the words of others, regardless of how true they might be. Blatter's frequent trips home? His mixing with the townspeople? His rounds of beer? His gifts? The visits by his important and famous friends? The foundation donations? All of that is indelible. Just like his football schools and training pitches around Africa and the Caribbean, and everywhere else where he's donated money for development. It's all evidence of his character. It's the kind of stuff you don't forget.
Everything else: corruption, Blatter's many gaffes and misdeeds? That might as well be hearsay. It's easily dismissed by his supporters as propaganda from the big countries, the sore losers in Blatter's FIFA.
Before leaving Visp, Mayor Furger told me about a typical Friday in town: "We have, from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m., a little market in Visp, where you can buy things like salad or whatever, and you can also have a glass of wine and a little raclette. [Blatter] comes and he is one of us. He is one of us, and we think positively of him. I am proud that we have the highest footballer in the world in our community."
I often picture Blatter there in this way, drinking wine in the market, chatting with the people of Visp, for whom he will always be President. And behind him, over a small hill, is the schoolhouse, and then the little river and then that big, dark mountain. And beyond that? Well, it doesn't really matter.
*The interviews have been edited for length and clarity